Iraqi boy scouts
Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Jamboree Jihad

A former CIA agent is on his strangest mission yet: giving Iraqi kids a scouting chance

Iraqi boy scouts

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

RETIRED NAVY COMMANDER William “Chip” Beck—Cold Warrior, onetime CIA operative, combat artist, and now a tireless booster for the seemingly gonzo idea of starting Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs in Iraq—skirts an old sandbag bunker and walks down to a clump of reeds growing out of the Tigris River in Baghdad, the kind that baby Moses would have drifted into.

Iraqi boy scouts

Iraqi boy scouts Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Plastic bags and rusted cans bob among the vegetation, washed in by the gray-green current. Like everything else in the city, the water-treatment plants are old and broken, and raw sewage flows into the river’s treacherous currents every day.

But Beck—a 58-year-old who seems constitutionally immune to pessimism—sees only good things when he looks at this mess, and at the 50-acre patch of land and five wrecked buildings beside it. Here, in what used to be a training center for Saddam Hussein’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, he sees canoe docks, campsites, and a conference center. He envisions what he grandiosely calls the National Iraqi Scout Headquarters.

As improbable as that sounds, it might happen. Over the past eight months, Beck and other scouting proponents have won support from a number of key Iraqi, U.S., and scouting officials, including Abduillah N. al-Jumaili, from the Iraqi Ministry of Education; Ambassador Paul Bremer, up until June 28 the head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); and Malek Gabr, deputy secretary general of the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), scouting’s Geneva, Switzerland–based organizing authority. Among the many cultural-reconstruction efforts under way in Iraq, scouting, the leaders agreed, could be an important component.

In keeping with that sentiment, the CPA this spring voted to donate the former police grounds to the Iraqi Scouting Initiative (the project’s working name). Soon after, 40 workers from JumpStart International, a New York–based nongovernmental organization that helps clear bomb sites in Iraq, started laboring in 114-degree heat to cart rubble from the camp—again, free of charge.

Other matters haven’t been so hassle-free. It will take more than $4 million in private donations to renovate the headquarters and get the program running, according to Beck and Michael Bradle, a 40-year-old Lampasas, Texas, businessman and former Eagle Scout who’s in charge of fundraising. There’s a long way to go before the knot-tying can start—only about $17,000 has trickled in.

And this place is definitely a money pit. Sometime during “shock and awe,” a bomb slammed a corner of the main building, another buckled the roof, and a third destroyed a movie theater at the back. The first time Beck went inside, he says, he felt like he was spelunking. The JumpStart crews have done a lot, but it still looks like an earthquake hit.

Beck, however, sees only what’s to come. The rifle range at the far end of the property—where Saddam’s agents refined their murder skills—can be used for archery. The riverfront can be an aquatic center, complete with speedboats for water skiing.

“Americans have been asking since 9/11, ‘How do you find common ground with Arabs and people in Islamic and Third World societies?’ ” Beck says, shifting into evangelical mode. “Scouting has been doing it for 97 years. It crosses religious and national values. It’s a belief system in something higher than yourself.”

As if on cue, a ten-year-old boy named Abdel Kadr appears and says he can’t wait to become a Boy Scout. “Salaam aleykum, Abu Ali,” he calls, using Beck’s Iraqi nickname. Since school’s out, Abdel spends days with his dad, Kadr Jamal Hamza, the on-site foreman at the camp, and with Beck, who’s found him a much-beloved bicycle. Beck also gives Abdel odd jobs. Today he’s carrying a knapsack that holds Beck’s 9mm Beretta pistol, a requirement for self-defense. Every time Beck ventures outside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone—the heavily fortified home of coalition forces—to come here, he’s risking his life.

“If we don’t try to build bridges, we’ll surely lose,” Beck continues. “This country has to return to normal!”

Maybe it’s the heat, but suddenly I feel like Beck has stopped making sense. In the weeks leading up to my visit, there have been near-daily car bombings and assassinations. More than 70 foreigners have been kidnapped; eight have been beheaded or otherwise executed. The continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq has sparked America-bashing worldwide.

At a time like this, what Iraq really needs is scouting? And even if it does, is a retired spook—an outspoken, crusade-craving adventurer with associations on the far-right fringe of American politics—really the best person to serve as its front man?

Not surprisingly, Beck has plenty of fans and detractors—all of them vocal.

“Chip Beck is an amazing man whose efforts are entirely a humanitarian gesture,” says Mark Clayton, spokesman for the WOSM. “Beck’s CIA background has absolutely nothing to do with reviving scouting in Iraq. The organization will be entirely homegrown, so Beck will not be a factor.”

Beck “absorbs himself in what intelligence professionals refer to as FLABS—Folk Lore and Bull Shit,” states retired U.S. Army colonel Joseph Schlatter on his Web site, Schlatter, a former deputy director of the Defense Department’s POW-MIA office, takes particular exception to Beck’s other pet cause: his belief that, since World War I, thousands of POWs have been abandoned to Soviets and other communist captors, while the U.S. government has done nothing.

Beck can’t be bothered with people’s opinions. He’s thinking about winning this war, now. Whatever you think of his motives, he clearly believes that scouting can help the country.

“This might be one of the only things in Iraq that ends up doing some good,” he says, only half kidding. And who knows? He might even be right.

IT’S NOT EASY to imagine kids selling Thin Mints and making lanyards in one of the world’s most war-torn countries. But the fact is, scouting is an Iraqi tradition.

Not long after the 1908 publication of Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys—which launched the world’s largest educational youth movement—scout troops sprouted everywhere, including the Arab world. (In 1910, Baden-Powell also founded the Girl Guides.)

Iraq was one of the first Arab nations to embrace the movement, launching its program in 1921, only two years after the League of Nations carved the country out of the old Ottoman Empire. By 1954, scouting had become so popular among Arabs that the WOSM established the Arab Scouting Region, based in Cairo.

Today, one-third of the world’s 38 million scouts and guides are Muslims—residents of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and dozens of other countries. Muslim scouts might not always partake in the same activities as their American counterparts—they don’t roast weenies, for one thing, since pork violates their dietary laws—but like Tenderfoots everywhere, they vow to be prepared.

Nothing, however, could have prepared Iraq’s 12,000 scouts for what happened after the Baathists took control in 1968 and Saddam seized power in 1979. One by one, youth groups were retooled to serve the state. One replacement program, Saddam’s Cubs, offered “summer camps” where 10- to 15-year-old boys endured 14-hour days filled with hand-to-hand fighting drills. By 1999, Iraq had been expelled from the WOSM.

Then came the 2003 war in Iraq, and the collapse of Saddam’s dictatorship.

Beck was retired from the military by this time: He was working in Washington as a Defense fellow at the Pentagon. But, like the “man of wealth and taste,” in the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” he’d spent an entire career being in the worst places at the worst moments—Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Lebanon, Afghanistan. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked for volunteers to go to Iraq, he signed up.

Beck arrived in Baghdad in December 2003 and took a job for the CPA Strategic Communications office doing “public diplomacy”—reaching out to the locals.

In January, sitting around a table and listening to mortar bursts outside, Beck, along with his boss at Strat Com, Gary Thatcher, and another CPA staffer, Terry Logonsky, started talking about their families. All of them, it turned out, lived in the Washington, D.C., area, and all had children involved in scouting.

Beck’s three children were scouts in Arlington, Virginia, his current home; Beck himself had been a scout in his native Hagerstown, Maryland. Like the other two men, he’d heard that scouting once existed in Iraq. Maybe this was a good time to get things restarted?

The trio sent out an “all hands” e-mail in the Green Zone to see if anyone wanted to help; several hundred people replied. In short order, Beck started a multinational volunteer council of scout leaders and boosters.

Thousands of miles away, meanwhile, Michael Bradle heard about the project through a friend. He and Beck agreed by phone to co-chair the effort, with Bradle in charge of, among other things, forming a nonprofit fundraising organization, the Iraqi American Foundation.

In February, CPA administrator Paul Bremer formally approved the Iraqi Scouts Initiative. Beck flew to Geneva and Cairo to meet the WOSM’s Gabr and Fawzi Farghali, director of the Arab Scouting Region. He met with Bradle and Boy Scouts of America officials in Irving, Texas, the group’s headquarters.

He also found a right-hand man, Nima Motashar, a 46-year-old Iraqi civil engineer who’d scouted in the 1970s and wanted to help Beck find former troop leaders. “Let me take you to an old scout camp in western Baghdad,” Motashar offered by phone. “People there want to meet you.”

“I didn’t have time to vet Nima,” Beck recalls. “So I went with him to meet these strangers—armed with a couple of weapons in my backpack.”

The strangers turned out to be about a dozen former Iraqi scout leaders, including current and past officials with the Iraqi Ministry of Education, and Farouq Solaiman, who’d once been a scouting commissioner.

Some of these men had vanished under Saddam; colleagues had presumed them dead. When Farghali flew to Baghdad in April for a meeting with Beck, he was amazed to see Solaiman—whom he hadn’t heard from in 16 years.

“Beck literally, one by one, pulled them out of the woodwork to gather an organization together,” says the WOSM’s Clayton.

Next, Beck found the police site and hired Motashar to manage it. And the initiative started to mushroom. Iraqi scouting, according to its formal blueprint, will involve all 18 Iraqi provinces. Its “21st-century headquarters” in Baghdad will include a dormitory, mess hall, restaurant, leave-no-trace campground, nature preserve, and jamboree area. The project will be financed with donations and campaigns like the ongoing Operation Pocket Change, in which scouts worldwide have been asked to pitch in with pennies.

“With $4 million, we can turn a camp for killers into a camp for kids,” says Beck. It’s one of the many scout-salesman lines that I’ve heard from him since we met. “With $100 million,” he proclaims, “we can change the face of the Middle East.”

OF COURSE, this being Iraq, change won’t come easy. And this being Beck—a man with 33 years in the military, 23 of them in the CIA—a few sparks are likely to fly.

Beck enlisted in 1963 and served as a frogman and Navy intelligence officer in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the Vietnam War. Later he worked for the State Department and the CIA in hot spots worldwide, from Mauritania and Ethiopia to Sudan, El Salvador, Colombia, and Panama.

Perhaps his most difficult moment came in 1984, following a stint in Lebanon. Shortly after he left the country, his best friend and mentor, the CIA’s Beirut station chief, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Islamic militants who tortured him over a 15-month period, then killed him.

Beck and Buckley had known each other since Vietnam. In the mid-1970s, they’d owned an antique store together in Manassas, Virginia. At Buckley’s funeral, Beck delivered a eulogy.

“Chip did a wonderful job in helping Bill’s family cope,” says 69-year-old Thomas Twetten, a retired CIA deputy director and chief of clandestine operations, who was one of Beck’s former bosses. “He’s a man of deeply felt beliefs, and he worked hard at trying to find ways to rescue Bill.”

The CIA would not let Beck return to Lebanon to pursue the search, however. “We felt he was so emotionally involved that we couldn’t trust him not to do something foolish and get himself kidnapped, too,” Twetten says. “He has passions, and he works full force for them.”

By the 1990s, Beck had begun a successful second career as an illustrator, painter, and editorial cartoonist. His skills got him posted to the 1991 Gulf War—as a combat artist. But it was in the mid-nineties that Beck, then a special investigator for the Pentagon on POW-MIA matters, began his wildest crusade. In congressional hearings he demanded to know why, as he put it, 9,000 unrepatriated American POWs over the past 80 years had been held by communist captors or sent to Soviet gulags for use in Nazi-like experiments and other schemes.

His allies in this theory were rabid conservatives like radio-show host Robert “B-1” Dornan, the former Republican congressman from Orange County, California—a man who used terms like “lesbian spear-chucker” to describe his political foes.

Beck’s detractors, meanwhile, can instantly be found on the Internet. “Beck craves to be part of some grand adventure,” declares, which denounces his crusades as self-centered and self-serving. Most recently, an anti-Semitic Bahrain newspaper, Akhbar al-Khalij, accused him of being part of a “Zionist plot” to “indoctrinate Iraqi young people.”

Those rantings aside, it’s difficult to reconcile Beck’s military career, which almost certainly required getting his hands dirty, with his near-obsessive focus on something as naively moralistic as scouting. One day I ask him straight out: Is his devotion some kind of atonement for his clandestine past?

He denies it. “If I had a chance to kill someone, I tried to wound them instead,” he says. “If I could capture them without hurting them, I’d do that. I always tried to keep my humanity intact.”

THE DAY AFTER Beck takes me to the camp, he invites me to watch him raise money—by selling Iraqi Scout badges outside a cafeteria in one of Saddam’s old palaces in the Green Zone.

Beck has laid his badges on a table in a narrow passageway, causing a traffic jam of tray-carrying men and women. Across the corridor, U.S. Marines line up for dinner that smells, as in every chow hall in Iraq, of overcooked canned tomato sauce. An older Iraqi in a suit stops.

Salaam aleykum,” Beck says, pointing to his wares. They read, AL KASHAFA AL IRAQIA (“Iraqi Scouts”).

“Yes, yes, I know,” says the man, a fifty-something named Mahdi Saleh. “I was a scout before the Baath party took over.” The patches cost $10 each, but Beck gives Mahdi one for free. “When the Baath party took control,” he tells Beck, “we were like little soldiers. We built bridges and trained with bombs.”

Bombs? This is hard to imagine, even in Iraq. I ask if he means firecrackers.

“Yes, yes, firecrackers. And we spent nights in tents!”

A man in his early twenties comes up. Speaking in English, he introduces himself as Toufic Chehwane, from Lebanon.

“I was in Lebanon in 1984,” Beck responds in French.

“I was a chief of a scout troop,” Chehwane says, pronouncing it “scoot.” Now he works as a “searcher” at the gates to the Green Zone, checking people for weapons and bombs. In Lebanon, he says, politics ruined scouting: “It became divided—Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox—and I didn’t like it,” he says sadly. “In Arab countries, they always want to divide us by religion.”

The peddling continues, with Beck, a human Berlitz tape, thanking all comers in their native tongue: Poles, Japanese, Spaniards, Nepalese, and, of course, Iraqis. After watching more than 100 people buy patches, I begin to wonder if I’ve suddenly accessed some vast, previously invisible scout underworld.

In the days ahead, moreover, I seem to meet former scouts everywhere I go. An Iraqi friend—a guy who once spent time chasing looters out of his neighborhood, and killed two of them—tells me over drinks, “Of course I was a scout!” and pours himself another Jim Beam.

At another friend’s house, an Iraqi is passing around photos, including some he took secretly from inside the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where he spent eight years as a political prisoner under Saddam. In one snapshot, he is much younger, and he’s bending down by a campfire making tea. “Those were taken on an orienteering trip in Kurdistan,” he explains. “When I was a scout.”

Not long after, I visit a museum in Halabja, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq that Saddam attacked with chemical weapons in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians. On the walls are photos of Kurdish scouts wearing shorts and kneesocks. Some of them, no doubt, perished in the mass murder.

IT IS JULY, two weeks since my last visit to the future scout camp, and Nima Motashar accompanies me back. Everything and nothing has changed.

The U.S. has handed over power to an Iraqi government, though 150,000 foreign troops, almost all of them American, remain. Beck has left Baghdad; his Defense Department stint ended and, though he’s applied for a State Department post as a civic-activities director in the Green Zone, the job isn’t guaranteed. He’s still working for the scout initiative and trying to raise money. “But scouting is in the hands of Iraqis now,” he says.

At the headquarters gate, new guards wear scout badges stitched to their uniforms. Hanging at the camp entrance is a 12-foot banner that advertises support for the project from the U.S.-led coalition. To some Iraqis, that translates as “Bomb here.”

In Iraq today, almost anything can become a target of violence. Since the June 28 changeover, an increasing wave of car bombings and other attacks have killed dozens of people across the country; on August 1, five Christian churches were bombed, killing 11 worshippers, two of them children.

Abdel, the ten-year-old boy, brings us some cold soda. I ask if he will get a lifetime membership in the scout program.

“Of course!” says Motashar. “He helped build it!”

Iraqi kids, I’m reminded, have had very little chance of escape—particularly the poorer ones, like Abdel. The Mehdi Army—led by hardcore Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most zealous foes of the U.S. Army occupation—is made up of kids who live in the sewage-filled streets of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum. I was embedded with the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry during some of the worst fighting last May, and as we drove around Sadr City in an armored Bradley, I saw a few dozen teenage fighters blown apart by explosive rounds.

Maybe if scouting was available, some Kurds might meet some Sunnis and realize they aren’t all genocidal maniacs. Some Shiites might meet some Christians, too. At least 5,000 scout wannabes have signed up with the Ministry of Education, and thousands more will join when the program actually starts, Beck says. If Iraq could just manage to survive the violence—if it could overcome the hostilities between its ethnic and religious groups, if it could put aside fears about Beck’s past, if it could recover from the shellshock of the U.S. invasion . . . if it could manage to do all those things, well, then scouting could actually work.

In the meantime, the laborers are still blowtorching rebar in the tattered buildings. The inside walls still bear the old police slogans: SADDAM IS WITH ME and WORK MUCH, TALK LITTLE.

The major cleanup should be finished by August; after that, they’ll be rebuilding, Motashar says. All they need is the money from Beck.

I ask what will happen if the money doesn’t come. Motashar just shakes his head. The scouts, like Iraq, still expect a lot from Americans.

“I don’t think that way—he has to bring the money,” Motashar says. “It will be a disaster if he doesn’t.”